My Kid Doesn't Listen, Now What?

My almost 7-year-old daughter has always been strong-willed in ways that have both frustrated and delighted me. As a fellow independent tough girl, I've always admired her fearlessness in voicing her opinions and sticking to her guns, even if it has led to some seriously bad outfits and questionable self-styled hairdos. But recently, her strong will has taken a new, less entertaining direction. Let's call it the "I'm not going to listen to a god d*mn thing you say" stage.

It's not that she has a hearing problem; instead, she is intentionally and stubbornly ignoring any request that comes out of my mouth when it doesn't agree with the plan she has formed in her own mind (and they usually don't). "It's time to turn off the iPad and take a shower," I'll say multiple times before realizing that her headphones aren't the reason she's not replying.

Or there was last weekend, when we went out to lunch with one of her girlfriends and her mother, who's a good friend of mine. We chose a table by the open kitchen and told the girls they could get up and watch the chefs at work. They took this to mean they could run around the restaurant like it was their personal living room, knocking into other patrons and almost colliding with a waiter carrying a seriously full tray of molten chocolate.

Every time I asked her to stop, using my best in-public scary mom voice and explaining that she'd almost been covered in dessert fondue, she'd sit down for a minute or two, then go right back to running. "I feel like you're actually trying to do the opposite of what I ask. Is that the case?" I asked. She didn't answer, though I'm certain she heard me, only further proving my point.

If you have a child who's in a similar stage of deciding to ignore any and all words that come out of your mouth — it's a common theme for 7- and 8-year-olds who are testing the limits of their increasing sense of self and independence — here are some of the ways to deal with it.

  1. Understand what you're dealing with. While willful deafness can be incredibly frustrating, it's also a normal part of childhood. School-aged kids' worlds are growing, and they're learning that they have more control over those worlds than they ever knew. Instead of getting angry, talk to your child calmly and reasonably about what you'd like them to do and when you'd like them to do it, during a time when they're not preoccupied, exhausted, or overwhelmed. When possible, try to make it a two-sided conversation instead of a one-sided demand.
  2. Incorporate humor or physical touch into your communication. I often find myself screaming my daughter's name over and over again trying to get her attention, and the only thing it accomplishes is giving me a scratchy throat. What works better? Sitting next to her and rubbing her arm or back, then telling her what I want her to do in a way that's silly or sweet, not nagging. "Hey, jellybean, your feet are pretty stinky; maybe we should go wash them off" always works better than "Go get in the shower now!" If your child tends to forget what you say before the words have left your lips, ask them to repeat them back to you to make sure they stick.
  3. Set limits and consequences. Instead of engaging in the same battles (turn off the TV, do your homework, clean up your room) daily, create some long-term guidelines and rules (allowing for a reminder or two), and also set appropriate consequences if things don't get done. For example, homework needs to be finished before dinner. You'll remind your kid after school and once again, but if it's still not done, no screen time after dinner.
  4. Reward good behavior. Go overboard on the praise when your child actually does listen and reply to you and follow through with what you ask. Reinforcing good behavior should create more of it.
  5. Pick your battles. Kids will be kids, and power struggles with parents are a normal part of childhood. Keep the peace (and your sanity) by choosing when to dig in on the important things — homework, household responsibilities — and letting the small stuff, like a pair of errant dirty socks in the hallway or a dish that didn't make it to the sink, slide.